Electric Library

I read everything, from Jane Austen to James Bond. These are reviews of what I'm reading. I'm a reader, writer, English major, so not an easy audience. If I can't say something nice, I might say something nasty. It's a cruel world.

Review | The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith | 3.5 Stars

The Silkworm - Robert Galbraith

If you’re anything like me, every now and then a book comes along and totally reshuffles your TBR list. This happened to me last week when I walked into Barnes & Noble (I JUST WENT IN FOR COFFEE AND TO DO SOME WRITING I SWEAR) and saw a stand of brand-new hardcovers copies of The Silkworm, basically screaming at me.


Now, let’s get one thing straight: I am not a blind follower of J. K. Rowling. I think she really is a talented writer, but like any writer she has strong moments and weaker ones. The whole Jesus – I mean, Harry – dies and comes back from the dead because he sacrificed himself thing? Not my favorite. Um, spoiler alert, I guess, but if you haven’t read Deathly Hallows by now, honestly what have you been doing with yourself?


Anyway. The point here is that even though J. K. will always have a special place in my heart, I can still be a (reasonably) objective judge of her work.


So The Silkworm. It’s the followup to Rowling’s crash-bang surprise detective novel The Cuckoo’s Calling (brief review of that here), which surfaced a year or so ago and introduced the literary world to Cormoran Strike, our disgruntled, one-legged PI. In my original review of Cuckoo, I mentioned that I had one big lingering question at the end, which was basically about the killer’s motivation (not his/her motivation to commit the murder, but to do something else totally nonsensical at the beginning of the book). I can’t tell you what specifically didn’t make sense without spoiling things, but at the end of Cuckoo, which was otherwise a pretty decent book, I was just going, WAIT WHAT WHY WHY WHY, which is not a feeling you really want to leave a reader with.


Rowling/Galbraith manages to avoid that pitfall in Silkworm. If anything the killer’s motivation is a little too clear, a little too cut-and-dry (possibly because it’s all left up to Strike’s interpretation and the baddie never gets to speak for him/herself), but I’d rather that than confusion. Overall, though, the story is well-crafted and compelling. Rowling’s insight to the literary world is clearly at work and undoubtedly fascinating to any aspiring author – and probably anyone with a keen interest in books. But as usual, where Rowling really excels is in her characterization. The cast of The Silkworm is colorful and engaging and operating with a wide variety of conflicting motivations, which nearly always makes for good reading. Perhaps the most interesting moment of the book comes when Strike wonders why on Earth he decided to take this case in the first place, when the client is clueless and difficult and may not even be able to pay him – and his reason is both touching and really freaking important (I think). I won’t spoil what it is, but keep an eye out for that paragraph if you decide to read this.


So here’s what kept this from being a five-star review: As I said before, the villain is perhaps a little too black and white. I can’t get too far into it without giving things away (guys, reviewing mysteries is really hard), but I will say that I honestly found the ‘reason,’ for the killing a bit disappointing. It seemed almost petty, like an easy way out for the author. But I think my biggest issue with it was that it made the villain this completely pathetic, despicable character. As I’ve said time and again, I want a villain that commands my respect. The killer of The Silkworm, in the end, did not.


However, it’s still worth a read. Get ‘em while they’re hot. You can find it on Goodreads here.

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2014/06/27/review-the-silkworm-4-stars

Review | The Lake of Dead Languages, Carol Goodman | 4 Stars

The Lake of Dead Languages - Carol Goodman

I decided to read The Lake of Dead Languages for two reasons: some book blog compared it to The Secret History and I found a gently loved copy of it at the Strand over spring break. I had a feeling I would like this so I decided to save it as a reward for getting through something more difficult.


Annnnd I read the whole thing on an eight-hour bus trip.


The Lake of Dead  Languages is the kind of book you fly through. We’ve talked a lot in Geronimo’s class about ‘the secrecy plot’ – i.e., a story that all leads up to the revelation of some (usually dark and devastating) secret. And, in critiquing a lot of people’s first few chapters, we’ve discovered that it’s a lot harder to do than it might sound. How much information do you share? How much do you withhold? Can the main character keep secrets from the reader? Etc. Well, I don’t know what the perfect formula is, but Carol Goodman’s figured it out. The Lake of Dead Languages flows like the Nile – smoothly and swiftly, and sometimes in totally unexpected directions. When everything finally starts to fit together, it just feels good. Not many novels achieve that.


The Lake of Dead Languages tells the story of Heart Lake, a boarding school for girls with a deeply troubled history. In narrator Jane Hudson’s senior year, one of her roommates committed suicide and shortly afterward, her other roommate and that roommate’s brother drowned in the lake. When Jane returns to the school years later to teach Latin, her past starts to catch up with her, and things go horribly wrong. I won’t give away anything else, because is the kind of story you want to read for yourself.


There are so many good things: Goodman’s sense of place is so detailed and so specific that you can almost follow the path from the school to the lake to the icehouse without help from Jane or the other girls. Her characters are deeply troubled mysterious creatures, but never implausible. This is a profoundly intelligent, emotional book, a volatile story told with impeccable control.


But of course, it’s not perfect. We see all too clearly Jane’s unhealthy obsession with Matt and Lucy Toller, but we never get to know them as well as we’d like. Deirdre is much the same. We see all of the other character’s through Jane’ eyes, but in many instances her vision is limited. I said before that the story flows like a river – and so it does. It’s effortless to read. One sentence leads you seamlessly into the next. For the most part, it’s a lovely effect. But there aren’t any sentences which are lyrically arresting (and I think as a writer that Goodman is certainly capable of that, she just needs to take a few more risks).


Overall, an excellent read which I will certainly be returning to. (Of course, it’s worth mentioning that modern Gothic novels with a classical twist are like my personal catnip.)


Four of five stars.


Find is on Goodreads here.

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2014/06/03/review-the-lake-of-dead-languages-4-stars

Review | The Writing Class, Jincy Willett | 5 Stars

The Writing Class - Jincy Willett

To be perfectly honest, this is a book written for a very specific group of people. I happen to be one of those people, or this would have been a three- or four-star review, most likely. However, if you’re following this blog, chances are you’re one of those people, too, so this book might be worth your while.


The Writing Class is a book written for anyone who has ever been in, you guessed it, a writing class. Speaking as someone who’s been in about a hundred, I can’t even tell you how on point Willett’s story is. But it’s also just a ripping good read.


The Writing Class is a murder mystery for writers and book nerds (so hi, obviously this is the perfect book for me). It follows Amy Gallup, a has-been novelist who’s spent the last ten years or so writing blurbs and an unsatisfactory blog and teaching adult writing courses in order to pay the bills. But her newest group is a surprisingly interesting bunch. They’re smart and eclectic and (in some cases) talented, but most interestingly, there’s a psychopath among them. It starts with a blistering mockery of another student’s work, a devastating anonymous critique, and then escalates to cruel practical jokes and eventually – murder. At the center of the mayhem sits Gallup, struggling to piece together the identity of ‘The Sniper,’ with only textual clues to follow.


Eventually the whole class gets on board, despite the fact that they’ve been officially disbanded. Using Gallup’s critical process, they collectively examine the Sniper’s work, hoping to identify the culprit. It’s difficult work, because nobody can be trusted, and personal feelings get in the way of objective investigation.


It’s a smart, fast-paced story, to be sure. But that’s not why I enjoyed it so much. Willett’s portrait of the typical writing class is what sold me. It’s so absolutely on point that I laughed out loud on more than one occasion and found myself saying, “Oh my God, I know that person.” Even funnier (and slightly more surprising) was when I looked at once of Gallup’s pupils and said, “Oh my God, that’s me.” (I’m Chuck, if anyone who’s read the book is wondering.) Willett has the perfect cast of budding writers – from the overly PC feminist warrior always looking for a fight to that one guy who’s only ever brilliant by accident. In Gallup’s writing class you will find everyone you’ve ever been in a writing class with. Not to mention, the atmosphere is so perfectly constructed that I found myself actually picturing the last classroom I had a writing class in – identical down to the detail of the box fan that’s always just a little too loud.


If you’ve ever been in a writing class, you need to read this book. If you’ve ever considered taking a writing class, you need to read this book. If you like books, you need to read this book. If you’ve never done any of those things why are you here you should read it anyway.


Five stars. Find it on Goodreads here, and look forward to quotes like this:

You might ask yourself why you want to surprise your readers in the first place. A surprise ending is sort of like a surprise party. Probably some people, somewhere, enjoy having friends and trusted colleagues lunge at them in the sudden blinding light of their own living room, but I don’t think most of us do.


Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2014/04/28/review-the-writing-class-5-stars

Review | Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel | 3 Stars

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1) - Hilary Mantel

A short review today, for three reasons:


  1. I am lazy.
  2. I’ve done a lot of work today.
  3. This book took forever to read, for some reason.


No offense to Hilary Mantel and Wolf Hall, but I’m ready to move on.


This is one of those books I bought like a year ago and for some reason never got around to reading. After being immersed in English political history for my thesis for the last three weeks, the time seemed right so I finally cracked it open. I think maybe because I’ve been waiting so long to read this and so many people have told me how good it is, I was a little underwhelmed.


Now, don’t get me wrong. It  is, objectively, good. The writing is strong, Mantel’s sense of history is impeccable and there’s enough drama to keep even the most die-hard of reality TV fans entertained. The language is efficient and persuasive, and every now and then Mantel offers an image so perfect that you feel compelled to read the same sentence over and over again. But sometimes those images are impaired by overly stiff language. Behold, an example:

It is hardly three o’clock, and already the room is half dark. He picks up the younger child, who flops against his shoulder and falls asleep with the speed at which someone pushed falls off a wall.

This comparison? Perfect. But there might have been an easier way to say it. Consider:

It is hardly three o’clock, and already the room is half dark. He picks up the younger child, who flops against his shoulder and falls asleep as fast as a man who’s been pushed falls off a wall.

Maybe overly casual but it makes more sense. I don’t know.


Anyway. We can’t discuss Wolf Hall without discussing Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s hero (antihero? It’s hard to tell) is a fascinating character study. He’s at once brutish and tender, boorish and refined, low-born but well-educated. He’s intelligent and manipulative and weasels his way into Henry VIII’s innermost circle until he’s essentially steering the kingdom. Cromwell is easy to like and easy to root for, without being too perfect. That’s not the problem. The problem is that we never know exactly what Cromwell wants. He wants power, yes, to remain in the king’s good favor, obviously, but what’s lacking is an overall goal. What does he want? What’s in his way? Cromwell is a little too laissez-faire about everything. Nothing major ever seems to be at stake. I think that fact is partly to blame for why it took me so unbearably long to finish this book. It’s dense, yes, and packed with historical detail, but I love that stuff. What I don’t love is a story that doesn’t really compel me to keep reading. Cromwell has ups and downs but on the whole seems pretty content. There’s rarely a sense of real urgency, that desire to bury your face in the book and ignore all your phone calls because you can’t wait to see what happens next.


Other minor grievances include Mantel’s tendency to jump from scene to scene without clear transitions, her occasional random use of the word ‘we’ without ever specifying who ‘we’ is, and her tendency to use the pronoun ‘he’ too liberally, when there are thirty men in the scene and you have no way to know which one’s speaking or acting. Generally we have to assume it’s Cromwell but it’s still confusing.


Is it still worth reading? If you’re into English history, sure. If not, you might struggle with it. It’s well-written for the most part and exhaustive in its attention to historical detail, but if you like a hero with a pretty clear motive, you might pass it by. Will I read the sequel anyway? Probably. If nothing else it’s shorter.


Find it on Goodreads here.

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/review-wolf-hall-3-stars

Review | The Tiger's Wife, Tea Obreht | 2.5 Stars

The Tiger's Wife - Téa Obreht

Hello, my children. I am writing this on a pittance of sleep, with my head full of Shakespeare and obnoxious thesis words like ‘perfunctorily,’ so if I don’t make much sense, please forgive me.


At any rate, not to be derailed from my goal of reading 70 books this year, I picked a short one for this week, knowing I’d be buried in an avalanche of thesis work. So I read Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. 


The Tiger’s Wife is a difficult book to summarize, because it seems to be trying to tell ten stories at once: a Balkan folk tale about an immortal man, the life story of the narrator’s grandfather, a provincial incident in which an escaped tiger haunts a rural village, the narrator’s experience vaccinating impoverished children in some far-flung corner of her fictitious country, and the origin story of every character to appear in between. This is not to say that there isn’t some overarching narrative thread – there definitely is, but sometimes it’s hard to find.


Natalia – the narrator – tells a number of disconnected anecdotes about her grandfather and growing up in an unnamed ‘City’ during an unnamed war. Every other chapter, her grandfather ‘interrupts’ to tell her a story about either (a) the deathless man, a sort of fairy-tale character who helps shepherd lost souls to the next life or (b) the titular ‘tiger’s wife,’ a deaf-mute girl who befriends the escaped tiger stalking the village of Galina. The stories are all interesting enough, but they never seem to go deep enough. The Tiger’s Wife was, for me, an oddly passive reading experience. I was curious to find out what happened next, but I didn’t really care. 


To be fair, this could have had something to do with how distracted I’ve been this week. However, I think this is one of those rare cases where the book actually wasn’t long enough. By the end of its short 337 pages, we know absolutely nothing about the narrator except that she’s a doctor who likes Bob Dylan. Instead of spending more time letting us get to know her, Obreht spends whole chapters telling us about the life of the apothecary of Galina, the butcher, etc., when the real story isn’t about them. It wouldn’t be entirely unfair to say that The Tiger’s Wife is a collection of short stories masquerading as a novel. Yes, there is a plot that carries the reader from beginning to end, but it clearly isn’t what Obreht had the most fun writing. And she is having fun – her writing flows well and is easy to read. But it’s not remarkable.


I think the other problem with this book is that there’s no real sense of danger, even though, ostensibly, there’s a war on for a good part of the book. Natalia has nothing to lose, which makes her story kind of casual. The worst thing that could happen is she won’t figure out what her grandfather was doing in Zdrevkov and she’ll carry on with her life. It reads like a fairy tale, but with all the peril removed.


Still, I enjoyed parts of this book – partly, I think, because I spent a summer living in Romania and much of the folklore was familiar. It’s an interesting cultural read, if not a literary one, and it does paint a fascinating picture of the war-torn countries that make up the former Yugoslavia. However, I think Obreht would be better suited to writing a collection of modern Balkan fairy tales. The novel doesn’t seem to be quite her style.


2.5 stars. Find it on Goodreads here.

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/review-the-tigers-wife-2-5-stars

Review | The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt | 2.5 Stars

The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt

Those of who have been keeping up with this blog for a while will probably remember that Donna Tartt’s masterwork, The Secret History, is one of only a handful of books to get a five-star review. So needless to say, I was excited to get started on her latest bestseller (it’s been ten years since Secret History), The Goldfinch.


It took me forever to finish, because life has been crazy – missed a train, got stranded in a Richmond bus station at four in the morning, my thesis is due in ten days, same old same old – but I just plowed through the last hundred and thirty pages and man, I have a lot of thoughts.


The Goldfinch is gripping right from the start: a thirteen-year-old boy’s mother is killed in an explosion at a New York museum, and in the ensuing confusion he accidentally steals a priceless painting of a little yellow bird. From there things go from bad to worse. Theo lives with a childhood friend for a while, and then is swept off to Las Vegas by his alcoholic, drug-addicted, gambling Dad. There he takes up with a ragged Third-Culture almost-orphan called Boris, who introduces him to the wide world of booze and drugs and desert. The first half of the book has an air of whimsical catastrophe about it almost reminiscent of Harry Potter. It reads like a fairy tale. Orphan boy, inescapable tragedy, mystic stolen painting.


But as Theodore Decker grew up, I began to like him less and less. His father dies in a car accident and he leaves Boris behind and jets back to New York, where he installs himself with an oblivious but kindly antiques dealer called Hobie. Theo learns the tricks of the trade and spends the next ten years literally tricking rich people into buying bogus furniture, doing enough drugs to more than melt his brain and pining hopelessly for Hobie’s surrogate niece, Pippa.


About halfway through the novel I realized it was no Secret History. Yes, it’s well-written, with all of Donna Tartt’s impeccable talent for description. That’s not where the problem is. The problem is with Theo’s lack of agency. For the first three hundred pages we feel terribly for him because he can’t seem to get a break. Tragedy after tragedy. But after a while it starts to feel like a cheap trick – Tartt manipulating the reader’s emotions by ensuring that every bad thing that could possibly happen does happen. But when we stop liking Theo, it stops working. Theo as a boy is pitiable. He’s young, he’s overwhelmed, his life has been fragmented, bizarre and hard. But by the time he’s twenty-six and we’re five hundred pages along, it starts to feel like an endless pity party. Theo never does anything. He is a character to whom things happen.




A passive narrator, in my opinion, is almost never a good idea – the exception being when the narrator is not the protagonist (i.e., the Sherlock Holmes/John Watson dynamic). Here, I think, is where Tartt missed the mark. Theo, frankly, is boring. It’s only when Boris shows up again around page 500 that the story is salvaged. Boris completely steals the show. He’s funny and peculiar and almost entirely devoid of recognizable morals, but because he is constantly making things happen - for good or for ill – he’s twice as likable as Theo. Boris is the real star of The Goldfinch, not Theo. How do we know this? Well, for the single most exciting part of the entire story, Theo is shut up in a hotel room in a drug-induced fever, and we, the readers, have to wait to hear about it from Boris when he shows up again after the fact. I think Donna Tartt secretly wanted to write a novel about Boris. She probably should have.


All that being said, the story itself is interesting, and Tartt’s prose technically excellent. In the last hundred pages she’s prone to excessive philosophizing and throughout the whole book the series of tragedies is vastly overdone. When literally everything goes wrong, people (a) cease to be surprised by it and (b) cease to care. But there’s just enough momentum to keep the story readable and just enough humor to keep you from getting sick of the tragedy and deciding to end it all yourself.


Would I recommend it? I don’t know. It’s an interesting read and Boris is priceless, but I think fans of The Secret History are bound to be disappointed. Still, if this had come from any other writer I would have been inclined to give it a higher rating. I’m disappointed mostly because I know what Donna Tartt’s really capable of.


Two and half stars. Find it on Goodreads here.

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2014/03/22/review-the-goldfinch-2-5-stars

Review | The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas | 5 Stars

The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas

If you know me at all you know that I have a weak spot for anything that could be described by the word ‘swashbuckling.’

swashbuckler (n) - a swaggering swordsman, soldier, or adventurer

I don’t really know why this is. I think I just have an insatiable hunger for adventure. Dumas provides that in spades.


I’ve read Dumas before but somehow never made my way around to the Musketeers, which is weird because it was one of my favorite movies as a kid and I knew several different incarnations of the story. After reading Alison Weir’s Wars of the Roses – which is a straight, unadulterated history and sort of whet my appetite for swordplay – I looked around my room, thought “What haven’t I read?” and there was The Three Musketeers, staring at me.


You guys, I’m so glad I decided to read it. This book is pure unadulterated fun. 

Most of the film and television adaptations have taken from pretty serious liberties with Dumas’ original, unabridged novel. Why, I’m not really sure, because the book is so delightful as it is. Perhaps there’s too much history to keep the average television viewer from feeling stupid, but that’s kind of what I love about it. Dumas does a masterful job of weaving together D’Artagnan’s clumsy bildungsroman, the political intrigue of the French and English courts, the military campaigns of the 1620s, and of course the various exploits of the three titular Musketeers – Athos, Porthos and Aramis.


Here’s the plot in a nutshell (and it’s hard to condense, because the book is like 600 pages): D’Artagnan travels to Paris to become a Musketeer, and befriends Athos, Porthos and Aramis just in time to foil a plot by the Cardinal to ruin the Queen, Anne of Austria. In the meantime, the vicious Milday de Winter, a favorite spy of the Cardinal’s, hatches a diabolical plan to assassinate the Duke of Buckingham – and to murder D’Artagnan and the woman he loves.


This all sounds very serious. And it is – but what doesn’t really figure into the plot description is the sheer number of shenanigans D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis get up to in their abundant free time. What do the Musketeers actually do when they’re not on active military duty? Well, according to Dumas, they drink, fight, gamble, seduce all the woman within walking distance, and then drink some more. Honestly, I’ve never seen so much shameless debauchery in one book. At any given point, two or more of the Fab Four are at least a little intoxicated, if not outright plastered, and in any given chapter at least one of them will get laid. Seriously. It’s unbelievable how much sex these guys have. Never mind that Dumas is obliged to never explicitly say so, but to hint at in an oblique and yet painfully obvious way. He makes all the other writers of the time look downright bashful. Maybe it’s because he was French. Who knows.



(See more Texts From The Musketeers here: http://musketeertexts.tumblr.com/)


But all the sex and spirits aside, where the fun really lies is in the characters. The Three Musketeers has the strongest leading cast I’ve seen in a long time. The villains are dripping brilliance. The Cardinal is so cold and calculating he makes Othello’s Iago seem like a fluffy little bunny rabbit. Milday de Winter is similarly terrifying (and what a win for strong female characters). Athos makes for great hero material. He’s smart, handsome, and mysterious, and possessed of a sense of honor that verges on idiotic at times. Think Mr. Darcy minus feelings plus fencing. Then we have Porthos. Porthos is a pompous buffoon whose antics are nothing short of hilarious. As for D’Artagnan, he fits easily in our favorite adolescent category of hotheaded, lovable idiots. He falls for a different woman every five minutes, treats them all terribly without even realizing it and then dashes off to have another adventure. Which leaves us with Aramis. Oh, Aramis. Aramis is my newest literary crush and you guys, I can’t even. He’s dashing and clever and the only one who seems to be capable of a remotely monogamous relationship, even if it is with a married woman so far out of his league he can’t even be seen in public with her. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that thanks to the BBC he will permanently look like Santiago Cabrera in my head.


Dat hat, tho.


Dat hat, tho.


But, uh, my imaginary love affair with Aramis is not the point of this post. The point is the characters in this novel are impossible not to like. Bonus characters include all the lackeys and the Duke of Buckingham, who makes a few positively swoon-worthy speeches to Anne of Austria (marital fidelity was apparently not a thing in seventeenth century France). I dare you to crack open this book and not crack a smile.


This all brings me to something I’ve been meaning to say for a while: Don’t neglect the classics. They’re endured for a reason, and Dumas’s body of work is no exception. The Three Musketeers is bursting with action and adventure and a slew of lovable scoundrels. Five stars. Not to be missed. Add it to your Goodreads shelf here, and then go grab a copy from your local bookstore. Because it’s been around so long, you can probably find an old used copy for a quarter, and if not that, I know Barnes & Noble carries a copy for less than five bucks. All for one!


(And when you’re all finished, you can slog through all the movie and TV adaptations, most of which will feature large numbers of Attractive Men With Beards. You can’t go wrong.)

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/review-the-three-musketeers-its-a-classic-for-a-reason

Review | Possession, A. S. Byatt | 3.5 Stars

Possession - A.S. Byatt

A. S. Byatt’s Possession is a deeply peculiar book. It won the Booker Prize when it was published in 1990, and as the Booker judges and I tend to have similar taste and the blurb intrigued me, I decided to give this one a go.


How to describe PossessionPossession is what you might get if Dan Brown had been an English major instead of a history nerd and actually had some skill with language.


Byatt clearly knows what she’s doing in terms of telling a story. Possession follows the similar paths of two (fictitious) Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, and two modern scholars, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey. Michell and Bailey stumble across a collection of scandalous letters exchanged by the married Ash and LaMotte, and set off on a race against a handful of other, pushy scholars to uncover what really happened before all the evidence is yanked out of their hands. Oh, and in the process they sort of fall in love. I say ‘sort of’ because it’s never entirely clear.


Roland and Maud are as peculiar a pair of lovers as you could ask for. Roland is a shy, unobtrusive young scholar who’s had the same girlfriend for almost ten years without ever really liking her that much and is constantly struggling to make ends meet. Maud is a successful scholar and formidable feminist, whose default setting seems to be ‘aloof.’ What they have in common is their love of poetry and the dead poets who wrote them. Academic passion slowly, clumsily transforms into a romantic passion – but instead of acknowledging it like any normal couple would, Roland crashes on Maud’s couch for a few weeks while they pretend to be totally platonic friends for no real reason. In the meantime they carry on dissecting the saga of Ash and LaMotte’s ill-fated love affair, and with the help of an eclectic group of friends, uncover some historically startling information. It’s a treasure hunt and a love story and an essay on human sexuality at once.


Byatt’s strengths are in storytelling and authenticity. Her characters are just weird enough to be real, and Ash and LaMotte convincing enough that I Googled them just to be sure they were, in fact, fictitious. It’s a good story and a well-written one, but it’s not perfect. Byatt favors an odd handful of words, which pop up so often in the text as to become a little exhausting. (The word ‘green’ is used so many times in the first few chapters that I was fighting the urge to reach for a pen and cross it out. Green is Maud’s spirit-color or whatever. We get it already. Ditto ‘serpentine.’ That is not a word you can use repeatedly.) She’s also prone to writing long-winded and relatively pointless journal entries as one of a crowd of secondary characters – Ash’s wife, Christabel’s cousin, etc. – which are clearly intended to impart pieces of crucial information without being overly obvious. But the result is that it’s boring and it would have been just as easy for Byatt to write, “Maud suddenly exclaimed, ‘Look at this passage here! Now we know why Christabel went back to Brittany!’” That being said, the story moves at a relatively good clip.


Possession is an undoubtedly interesting read. The narrative at times seems to undermine the author’s own suggestion that love and sex aren’t necessarily the same, but it still makes for an interesting study of poetry, sexuality, and gender norms both in the ’80s and the Victorian era. A good read for those who like their classics with a modern twist, or those who want something heady to chew on with a cup of tea on a rainy day.


3.5 stars. Find it on Goodreads here, then support your local bookstore by buying it there. (Yes, I am shameless.)

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2014/02/16/review-possession-3-5-stars

Amtrak is Doing Something Awesome

So, apparently what started as a casual Twitter conversation (you can find most of it under the hashtag #AmtrakResidency) has turned into the most awesome idea ever.



Basically, Amtrak has created a ‘writing residency’ program, where writers can pay very little (or nothing) to take a cross-country trip via train and do nothing but write.



Seem weird? You’ve probably never written on a train.


You guys. I LOVE TRAINS. Honestly, that was one of my favorite things about the collective year I’ve spent in Europe. Trains. Trains everywhere. They’re cheap and comfortable, way less hassle than flying, and you get to look at all the pretty scenery.


Check out more about this killer idea here:

Inside Amtrak’s (Absolutely Awesome) Plan to Give Free Rides to Writers

So, how do I sign up for this like right away?

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2014/02/24/amtrak-is-doing-something-awesome

Review | The Secret History, Donna Tartt | 5 Stars

The Secret History - Donna Tartt

I sat down today with the intention of reviewing Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. This book has been around a while, so you might be wondering what took me so long to get it to it. Truthfully, I don’t know, and while I’m sad in a way that I didn’t read this book the moment it came out, I think last week was the perfect time in my life to read it.

The Secret History is, as the title of this post suggests, the best book I’ve read in five years. One of the best books I’ve read ever. I’m not sure I can accurately describe what this book did to me, but I’m going to try.


The Secret History tells the story of six young Greek scholars at a secluded Vermont university, where they form close and complicated bonds with their professor – and each other. Henry, Charles, Camilla, Francis, Richard and ‘Bunny’ are a peculiar and eclectic group, frighteningly intelligent and dangerously isolated from the rest of the world. Together they embark on a Bacchanalian experiment which quickly spirals out of control, with unthinkable repercussions.


I won’t ruin the story for you. But that’s not all I can say about this book.


The Secret History is a staggering work. It is beautifully written, brutally honest and controlled with unfathomable finesse. It is at once breathtaking and terrible. I feel it only fair to warn you: If you open this book, you will find yourself adrift on a sea of moral ambiguity. Tartt tells of the violent, the disturbed and perverse with such perfect delicacy that you can’t help being alarmed by how little it alarms you. Professor Morrow’s darlings all do despicable things. But they are characters so tenderly rendered that you cannot help hoping that they’ll get away with all of it – even murder.

How does that grab you?


It’s been a long time since a book had me so utterly at its mercy. Of course it isn’t perfect, but it is a book I will read over and over again in years to come. But I think I may read something a little more lighthearted before I pick up Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch. That’s not to say I’m not desperately curious about it.


If you’re at all intrigued, you can find The Secret History on Goodreads here.


And here’s one of my favorite lines, just to whet your appetite:

I slept all day, face down in the pillow, a comfortable dead-man’s float only remotely disturbed by a chill undertow of reality – talk, footsteps, slamming doors – which threaded fitfully through the dark, blood-warm waters of dream.

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2014/01/17/review-the-secret-history-the-best-book-ive-read-in-five-years

Review | Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem | 3 Stars

Chronic City - Jonathan Lethem

Before you raise your eyebrows, let me say this: Chronic City is a book with no real plot, but somehow it works. The lack of plot is almost the point.


Chronic City is Jonathan Lethem’s newest novel, eagerly devoured by the many lovers of Fortress of Solitude. I never actually read Fortress, but I did read and really enjoy Motherless Brooklyn. I was a little wary of Chronic City, wondering if I as a non-smoker (of any substance) would really be able to appreciate it. Curiosity convinced me to pick it up anyway. Sometimes it’s good to get out of your comfort zone.


So I read Chronic City, which is the story of former child star Chase Insteadman, jobless but living comfortably, a permanent fixture of New York’s social circuit, continuously pretending to pine for the stranded astronaut fiancée he barely remembers. Enter Perkus Tooth, a peculiar self-appointed music and movie critic who seems to only consume weed, coffee and bagels. And this is where I run out of explanation. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of things happen in this book – it’s just hard to isolate a single narrative thread. It’s more like a tableau of the people and places and things that populate Chase Insteadman’s seemingly pointless life.


And, weirdly enough, that seems to be the point. Chase’s life is pointless. That’s the point. New York is coming down around his ears and every other character has a mission to complete, but Chase simply floats along, a footnote in everyone else’s story, living life on pause while Janice is stranded in outer space.


This is a deeply weird book. It probably makes more sense if you’re high. That being said, I did enjoy it. Lethem has an uncanny ability to describe things in unexpectedly accurate ways, and his sense of humor often zaps you like a bee sting when you’re not quite ready for it.


Example A (and my favorite passage from the entire book):

“Hark!” said Perkus. When he spoke the hiccups emerged as silences, but when he was silent they took the form of these Shakespearean exhortations.

I won’t give away the end, but the story does get suddenly serious. It’s almost difficult to grasp, but what Lethem seems to be saying is: Everything you think you know about New York (and possibly your life) is a lie. Now what are you going to do about it?


Three stars. Find it on Goodreads here (and then buy it from a real bookstore!)

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2014/02/10/review-chronic-city-a-book-with-no-plot

Review | Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan | 5 Stars

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

Is this book perfect? No. Is it my favorite book I've read this year? Yes.


Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is one part fantasy, one part sci-fi, one part blistering satire, all parts awesome. 24-Hour Bookstore follows the peculiar adventures of Clay Jannon, a graphic designer who finds himself out of a job and desperate for work in a slightly futuristic San Francisco. I don't think the actual year is ever indicated, but unlike so many dystopias dreamt up by the literati, Sloan's future is easy to imagine. Jobs are scarce and Google essentially runs the country (and kind of the world).


Clay takes the night shift at the titular bookstore - a peculiar place that caters to a handful of eccentric old people and a few errant working girls from the strip club next door - and gradually learns that Mr. Penumbra's establishment is a front for something much weirder. His curiosity gets the better of him, and after a few weeks' amateur sleuthing, Clay finds himself mixed up with a secret society which is being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.


The story is a romp, to be sure, but that's honestly not what made me love this book. Robin Sloan captures - almost flawlessly, I think - the curious in-betweenness of my generation: namely, disenchanted twenty-somethings who are graduating into a job market that has no room for them. The number of times I laughed out loud and said to myself, "I do that literally all the time," turned out to be more than I could really keep track of. But beyond that, Sloan raises a question which is important to me both as someone hoping to get into the publishing field and just as a book nerd in general. Can the old-fashioned book world and the e-reader economy make peace?


In 24-Hour Bookstore, Sloan lights up the ideological war between the old-fashioneds and the progressives in technicolor prose. What's most remarkable is the his ability to maintain neutrality - he's not making an argument for one side or the other. He's simply illuminates it and leaves the decision-making to the reader. Now, as many of you probably know, I am no fan of the e-reader. I like tangible, paper-and-ink bona fide books. But Sloan had me re-thinking all my arguments against the Nooks and Kindles and what have you. It is not often I find a book that can make me question my own stalwart opinions.


Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore occupies a strange, liminal place between fantasy and reality, the Old World and the New. And whatever you decide once you've finished it, you will have laughed a lot and loved every word along the way.


Except for the annoying overuse of the word 'stalk' as an intransitive verb, I can't think of anything bad to say about this book. It's a book for book nerds and technophiles alike, which is not something you find every day. Don't miss out.


Find it on Goodreads here, and then go buy it from your local 24-hour bookstore.

PS. If you buy the copy pictured above right you'll be in for a treat once you turn the lights out. Picador is a clever clever publisher.

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/review-mr-penumbras-24-hr-bookstore-5-stars

Review | The Stockholm Octavo, Karen Engelmann | 4 Stars

The Stockholm Octavo the Stockholm Octavo - Karen Engelmann

Karen Engelmann’s The Stockholm Octavo was one of those books I pulled off a Barnes & Noble shelf at random because the cover art and the title caught my eye. The description was similarly intriguing and because I tend to have a good instinct about books, I bought it.


Then it sat on my shelf for two and a half months.


I do this a lot – buy books and then don’t read them for a while. It all depends on what I’m in the mood for. But if I see a book about turn-of-the-nineteenth-century Sweden, I have to have it, just in case I can’t find it again (absurd, I know).


So I decided to read The Stockholm Octavo last week because I need a break from all the crime fiction and because we’re getting into the Christmas season and the next Hobbit movie is coming out soon, so there’s magic in the air and I just felt like a fairy tale.


This was a good choice. Engelmann’s Octavo is nothing if not an immersive read. It’s difficult not to get swept up in the blindingly colorful atmosphere of ‘the Town’ in the early 1790s.


Octavo follows the intertwining paths of about a dozen different characters as they flit in and out of Emil Larsson’s life. Promised by a ‘Seer’ that the completion of his Octavo – a kind of fortune-telling card game – will lead to ‘love and connection,’ Larsson expects little more at the outset than a promotion and an advantageous marriage. What he gets is a treasonous plot to assassinate King Gustav III and task of rescuing him, a cross-dressing calligrapher and a pretty young apothecary from the clutches of the ambitious Madame Uzanne – a widow with a vengeance against Gustav and a master manipulator of that vital revolutionary accessory, the folding fan.


What Engelmann does well is spin a web of intrigue that keeps pages turning, and tease the reader with just enough magic and mystery to tickle his imagination. That, and I have to admit, I love a good female villain who can play ball with the boys. It’s not something you see every day.


Of course, Octavo has its problems, the foremost of which is that what each of Sweden’s political factions actually wants is never fully explained, so it’s hard to know whose side to be on. The climax is a trifle confusing, and the end strangely unsatisfying, possibly because it takes the story in quite a different direction than expected or was ever hinted at.


That being said, I really enjoyed this book. It’s fanciful and enticing, but grounded in a real enough place that it doesn’t feel like reading fantasy. A good read, probably, for people who liked Harry Potter in their younger years and want a little taste of grown-up magic.


Four stars.


Go out and buy it from a real bookstore! Or find it on Goodreads here.

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2013/12/03/review-the-stockholm-octavo-4-stars

Review | Garnethill, Denise Mina | 4 Stars

Garnethill  - Denise Mina

As some of my more regular readers know, recently I've been making more of a foray into the swampland that is the mystery genre - and it is a common saying of mine that 10% of mysteries are great, 10% are terrible, and the 80% in the middle are just mediocre.


Garnethill is many things, but mediocre it is not (and neither is it bad). Denise Mina's debut thriller certainly has a few clumsy moments, but none that stopped me from flying through it at about 100 pages a day (this might not seem like much but when you're on the schedule I'm on, it really is).


I don't know what it is about the British Isles and Scotland in particular, but for some reason the best crime writers all seem to come from the same handful of cities. Maybe it's the Gothic castles or windswept moors or bleak, hopeless climate. I couldn't tell you why exactly, but I was more productive than I've ever been in my life the six months I lived in Edinburgh, and it seems to be a common trend.




Mina's Garnethill takes the reader into the dingy, hard-drinking city of Glasgow, and the apartment of Maureen O'Donnell, where her married therapist boyfriend has been tied to a chair in the living room and had his throat cut down to the bone. As soon as the police uncover Maureen's skethcy psychiatric history, she finds herself on the top of the suspect list and struggling to unravel the combined mysteries of who killed Douglas, why they did it, and for what reason he deposited £15,000 in her bank account the day before he died.


Maureen's amateur sleuthing (with the help of her drug-dealing brother and foul-mouthed biker-chick Leslie) leads her around in rapidly shrinking circles until she finds herself face to face with Douglas' murderer. It's a well-written, fast-paced thriller with a sharp wit and a sense of humor, but the real strength of the narrative lies in Mina's dedication to crafting diverse and believable characters. Between Maureen's far off-balance family, a team of out-of-depth police officers and the less-than-admirable echo of Douglas that haunts the apartment, you can't be bored for a minute.


But perhaps what's most worthy of praise is Mina's remarkable ability to handle issues as delicate as rape and familial abuse with a certain kind of finesse. No, she doesn't shy away from the ugliness and the horror of it, but neither does she exploit it for the sake of sensationalism. It's a difficult line to walk, but Mina does it frighteningly well and to great effect.


Of course, no novel is perfect. Garnethill is no exception. Mina's two chief stumbling blocks as a writer seem to be a proclivity for info-dumping and an inability to adhere to a third person close narrative perspective. Scenes are often interrupted by whole paragraphs of exposition and backstory clumsily shoe-horned into the narrative - and while the information is necessary for the reader to have, there would have been more graceful ways to convey it. Similarly, every five chapters or so the reader is unceremoniously yanked out of Maureen's head and shoved into the unfamiliar consciousness of another character. This kind of shifting perspective can be done and can be effective, but in this case it needed to be done more consistently or not at all. The end result in Mina's novel is jarring and uncomfortable.


That being said, these are the sort of mistakes to be expected in a first novel, and not enough to keep me from glancing at the clock each night and muttering, "One more chapter and then I'll go to bed." So if you're in the market for a mystery that doesn't pull cheap tricks or dismiss the necessity of character development, look no further. Garnethill is worth reading, and if it's not enough for you to get your fill, never fear. There are two more books in the series.


Find Garnethill on Goodreads here, or click here to buy it on Amazon.

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2013/10/16/review-garnethill-4-stars

Review | Sutton, J. R. Moehringer | 3 Stars

Sutton - J.R. Moehringer

I pulled J. R. Moehringer’s Sutton off the shelf because the cover caught my eye, as did the simplicity of the title. I read the blurb on the back and knew I had to buy it, in spite of the fact that is was an Oprah book (vomit).


Sutton is Moehringer’s version of the life of Willie ‘the Actor’ Sutton, who was once upon a time the most famous bank robber in the world. According to Moehringer’s calculations, in a career that spanned several decades Sutton took down 37 different banks in and around New York City, using props and costumes – but never violence – to get inside, get what he wanted and get out again. Sutton crashed out of several different prisons, changed his identity and lived much of his life on the run. But Moehringer’s story isn’t really about that. Moehringer’s story is a love story.


In his account of Sutton’s life, Moehringer places enormous emphasis on Sutton’s first love, Bess Endner – a girl from a wealthy family whose relationship with poor Irish Town boy Willie Sutton got them both in enormous trouble, and kickstarted Sutton’s life of crime. She moved on, got married, had children – while he went to prison for almost ten years.


Moehringer’s novel is a curious combination of whimsical young love and the gritty, horrible reality of prison and crime in early 20th-century New York. And for the first 300 pages, it works. Sutton’s tender obsession with Bess makes the reality of his time in jail and on the run that much more poignant, that much more tragic. But Bess as a character is more complicated – or perhaps not fully realized by the author. Bess’ love for Sutton feels more than genuine when she has an active role in the story, but once they’re separated she seems to have little interest in reconnecting with Sutton or even atoning for her role in his incarceration. And Sutton, though his every thought in some way or another comes back to Bess, seems content to let her carry on living without him when pursuit of her is inconvenient. Perhaps Sutton loves the idea of Bess more than he really loves her, or maybe he only loved her as she was at age sixteen, or maybe he was simply afraid of what she might do if he really pursued her.


These are all questions that Moehringer almost poses, and never quite answers. It’s not unusual for an author to leave such speculative questions answered, so that wasn’t my objection to Moehringer’s ending. My objection has to do with a much more jarring lack of closure.


The first 90% of the book is fairly consistent in its treatment of truth vs. rumor and truth vs. mythology. But in the last twenty pages or so Moehringer throws the whole scheme out the window by (minor spoiler alert) telling the reader that Sutton may have been full of crap all along. May have been. He never really gives a definitive yes or no.


This sort of ending is tremendously unfair to a reader. It left me feeling as if I’d been led on, because up until the very end, there was no real reason to suspect Sutton of being an unreliable narrator (the story is written in third person, but Willie is telling it). I felt as though I’d been tricked into caring about the outcome of a story that may not have been true from the beginning.


Don’t get me wrong – an unreliable narrator isn’t wrong. But writing the first nine tenths of your book as if he is perfectly reliable and then suddenly yanking the rug out from under him cheapens your story and leaves the reader feeling cheated. At least, that’s how I felt.


Here’s my other major point of critique: WHERE IN THE HELL ARE THE QUOTATION MARKS? I just did a post about dialogue, in which I brought up this problem. Who in the world decided that we don’t need quotation marks for dialogue now? When I started reading this and realized there were no quotation marks, I honestly considered chucking it out the window. Why risk confusing the reader? Really, I ask you, what is the logic behind this? You’d think that Moehringer, a journalist, would understand the importance of making quotations clear and accurate. Apparently not.


Those things being said, I didn’t regret reading or buying this book. Moehringer’s settings and characters are delightfully vivid. He paints a remarkably colorful portrait of New York from 1901 to 1968, and populates it with some of the most amusing (but simultaneously believable) characters I’ve seen in a work of fiction. Perhaps this has something to do with Moehringer originally being a journalist.


But here’s what ultimately makes the book a delight to read (at least up until the end), and kept me going despite the infuriating lack of quotation marks: Moehringer’s prose is – there’s really no other word for it –electric. He has a remarkable ability to convey grief, fear, happiness, irony – so many enormous things, with only a few words that just happen to fit together splendidly. I have to say, I did not expect such rich and splashy prose from a journalist-cum-novelist. Moehringer clearly has some creative flair, but it’s nicely balanced by a perhaps journalistic notion that brevity is the soul of wit (and just speaking of wit, parts of this book are hilarious).


The passage below was one of my favorites. If it sounds like something you’d like to read more of, go find a copy of Sutton. It’s worth a few hours of your week.


He likes that first sight of those jewels. People are already mad for diamonds, but people don’t know the half. The haunting beauty of stolen diamonds in a black silk purse at two in the morning – it’s like being the first person to ever see the stars.”


Three stars. Buy it on Amazon here. Find it on Goodreads here.

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/review-sutton-3-stars

Review | Hawaii, James A. Michener | 3.5 Stars

Hawaii - James A. Michener

You guys, I finally finished Michener. This is a big deal.


Let’s be clear: Big books don’t scare me. The unabridged Les Mis is one of my favorites. I’m a fast reader. That being said, it took me almost a month to finish James A. Michener’s Hawaii. 


Here’s why: Hawaii is an epic. There’s no other word for it. It’s a thousand onion-skin pages of tiny, tiny words, crammed full of history and conjecture. It’s fascinating, it’s captivating, it’s vividly written – but it’s also incredibly dense. For every hundred pages of thrilling ocean voyage, there’s another hundred pages on the economy of pineapples.


I had the good fortune to start reading Hawaii while I was actually living on Maui, My mom sent me this book without telling me she had (nice move, Mom), and when it arrived, I was a little bit skeptical. Technically, it’s non-fiction. I’m always skeptical of non-fiction, because it can be so painfully dry. There are, of course, exceptions. Michener is one.


When I did grudgingly crack this book open, it didn’t take me long to realize that I should have done so weeks before.


Hawaii begins with the prehistoric formation of the Hawaiian islands, and carries the reader all the way through the 1950s (it couldn’t go any farther, because it was written in 1959). Because it’s such a lengthy piece of work, it’s split into six different ‘books.’

The second book (From the Sun-Swept Lagoon) was by far my favorite, as it follows a group of thirty or so Bora Borans as they leave their home island and travel 2,000 miles north to an unknown destination IN A FRIGGIN’ CANOE. Anybody who knows me knows that I love boats and shipwrecks and deserted islands and ocean stories, so the first two hundred pages or so were right up my alley. Michener makes history read like a novel (undoubtedly he’s imagined it his own way), and is just as eloquent as his fictionally-inclined contemporaries – if not more so. Consider, for example, the following quote:


For nearly forty million years the first island struggled in the bosom of the sea, endeavoring to be born as observable land. For nearly forty million submerged years its subterranean volcano hissed and coughed and belched and spewed forth rock, but it remained nevertheless hidden beneath the dark waters of the restless sea, to whom it was an insignificant irritation, a small climbing pretentious thing of no consequence.


If I could just give the first and second books five stars, I probably would. Teroro remained my favorite character for the next 800 pages, and once Michener had moved on from the Bora Borans, I missed them.


This is probably because the third book focuses on a painfully self-righteous group of missionaries from New England and their misguided crusade to Christianize Hawaii. While I understand the necessity for this section of the book (especially considering almost all of the Caucasian characters who appear afterwards are descended from this small group of families) it started to feel repetitive very quickly. From the Farm of Bitterness, the third ‘part,’ spends  a bit too much time on the cycle of hopelessly prejudiced Reverend Abner Hale struggling to convert the Hawaiians, then losing his temper with their pagan ways and having a tantrum until his inexplicably patient wife manages to calm him down. Honestly, by the time I got to the fourth book, I was so sick of Abner Hale that I considered skipping about a hundred pages just to get past the point where he died.


The fourth book (From the Starving Village) was considerably less painful. Though it’s nominally focused on Nyuk Sin and her expansive Chinese family (the Kees) as they establish themselves on Oahu, it also follows the growth and expansion of the missionary families as they gradually take over all of Hawaii’s trade and industry. In this fourth section, we also have the plague, the leper colony of Molokai, and lots and lots of prostitutes (There is a lot of sex in the book. It’s all very wink-wink, nudge-nudge, but if the idea of a thirty-year-old man whiling away a few blissful afternoons with some sixteen-year-old island girl bothers you, you might have to skip a few chapters).


The fifth book shifts onto the rigidly traditional Japanese family of Kamejiro Sakagawa, while still keeping track of the Kees, the Hales, the Hewletts, the Whipples, the Janderses and the Hoxworths. Here we spend a great deal of time learning of all the different prejudices the races of Hawaii harbor toward one another in the process of Hawaii’s absorption by the United States. Here also is where World War II takes place; and though the exploits of the four enlisted Sakagawa boys are described in great detail, more enormous events (like the attack on Pearl Harbor, the bombing of Japan, and D-Day) are discussed only briefly, or in a few peculiar cases, not mentioned at all.


The Golden Men, the final book of Michener’s Hawaiian marathon, seeks to bring the heroes of the previous four installments (or their descendants) together, perhaps in an effort to highlight the ethnically ambiguous Hawaiian identity. The book ends quietly and on a peculiarly political note. Personally, I found the ending a little abrupt.


That being said, Hawaii is certainly worth reading. The Baltimore Sun’s description of it as a “mammoth epic of the islands” is pretty spot on, and the force of Michener’s prose manages to move the story forward at the breakneck pace necessary for such an ambitious, lengthy piece of work. It’s partly fiction, partly fact, but if you decide to read it, you’ll learn more in these 900-some odd pages than you would reading ten other novels (which would probably take about the same amount of time). Michener’s characters are complete and colorful, occasionally hilarious, and have a tremendous capacity to capture the reader with the peculiar feeling that he’s met these people somewhere before. Dense, yes, but delightful also.


There are a few points of critique, of course, and I’m going to present them in list form, because if I try to get too detailed, this review will come out being longer than the book itself. And here they are:


  • Despite the inclusion of family trees, characters are (with a few exceptions) almost impossible to keep track of. This is not helped by the fact that the Hawaiian families, Chinese families and English families apparently used the same names over and over again for something like three hundred years. This isn’t Michener’s fault, obviously, but it does make the reading difficult in places.
  • The book can feel a little schizophrenic at times, because it’s so busy jumping back and forth from the Hales to the Whipples to the Kees to the Sakagawas. And while Michener’s attention to the so-called ‘Oriental’ community is both interesting and necessary, it’s worth nothing that after the third ‘book,’ Hawaii ceases to really be about Hawaiians at all. Maybe this is a deliberate reflection of how the Hawaiian people were effectively ignored after the immigrant populations decidedly took over, but it still felt rather odd.
  • Every now and then, Michener as the author will interject and interrupt the third-person omniscient style of narration with a first-person pronoun (i.e., the results of this altercation, which I mentioned earlier…), which is annoying at best and jarring at worst, and unceremoniously yanks the reader out of the flow of the story.
  • Events that seem glaringly important are sometimes completely glossed over. I wanted a close account of the attack on Pearl Harbor so badly, precisely because Michener is such a good writer. Instead I got a Japanese boy on a bike, pedaling around wondering what in the hell was going on. Opportunity lost.
  • At the very end of the book [spoiler alert?] Michener suddenly reveals that Hoxworth Hale, one of the missionary-descendant characters, has been telling this story all along, which I guess is supposed to mean the annoying first-person interruptions I mentioned earlier came from him. I get that sometimes authors do this, pretend to be one of their characters, but it’s weird here because Hoxworth Hale doesn’t even appear until 600 pages in, and when I got to the end, instead of thinking, “Oh hey, that was clever,” my thought process was more along the lines of, “Wait, what?” Which really is not a note you want to end on.


Still, for a book about as long as the Bible, these are pretty minor complaints.


Ultimately, I’m glad I tackled this book, because it gave me a much deeper understanding of this beautiful, amazing place where I was lucky enough to live for a few months. I can’t say for certain if it would be as captivating for anyone who hasn’t spent a few afternoons exploring the beaches and jungles and volcanic craters of Hawaii, but if you can’t get there, this might be the next best thing.


Three and a half stars. Buy it on Amazon here, or add it to your Goodreads shelf here.

Source: http://inkedoutloud.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/review-hawaii-3-5-stars